Six years ago the Turkish lira was worth more than six Egyptian pounds. The exchange rate was undoubtedly a factor in attracting a large number of Turkish tourists to Egypt despite the sparks flying back and forth between Cairo and Ankara. Today, the economic picture is almost the reverse.
The lira has nosedived vis-à-vis the dollar while the Egyptian pound has not only held its ground but steadily gained in value amid praise for the Egyptian government’s handling of the economy and encouraging prognoses by international financial agencies. Meanwhile, the Turkish government’s fiscal policies have spurred mounting concern among international financial agencies and economic experts who fear worse is to come for the Turkish economy unless policymakers take some courageous decisions.
Comparisons between a Turkish economy in decline and an Egyptian economy on the rise have found their way into Turkish dailies, especially those opposed to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is not surprising given how painfully aware critics are that the problems of their ailing economy are no longer purely structural but increasingly rooted in the foreign policies pursued by their government which Turkey’s allies in NATO, and former regional partners, have come to regard as driven by an expansionist agenda and a thirst for the wealth and resources of Turkey’s neighbours.
In contrast, on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean, Egypt has proceeded steadfastly yet prudently on a path to economic development that has earned widespread international respect. It is a situation guaranteed to fan Erdogan’s wrath. Already furious with Cairo for having sabotaged his plans for Syria in 2013, Erdogan is incensed to see Western leaders praise what he calls a “coupist regime” while showing disdain for his own “dictatorship”.
More recently, Cairo threw another spanner into Erdogan’s hegemonic drive when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi declared the area from Sirte to Jufra a red line in the conflict between the eastern and western camps in Libya. Referring to the militia groups fighting for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the mercenaries that Ankara has transferred into Libya from Syria, Al-Sisi made it clear that Egypt would not permit “militias and the foreign forces that support them” to take one step beyond this line.
This resolute move, consistent with European peace-making aspirations for Libya, marked a turning point that was, on the whole, favourable for Cairo. It threw Ankara’s calculations into disarray and forced Turkey to tread more carefully. Having repeatedly vowed to press forward with the “holy march” into Sirte, Jufra and beyond, Erdogan has had to fall silent and turn his fulminations in other directions. It is little wonder that his opponents at home speak of the “Erdogan sound effect”.
The reversal of Erdogan’s ambitions in Libya was one of many foreign and domestic policy setbacks for a notoriously impetuous and adventurist regime whose pursuit of a neo-Ottoman irredentist vision steeped in a blend of Islamist, ultranationalist and ethnocentric chauvinism has grown more and more obsessive since the “coup attempt” of July 2016.
We can only hope that the increasingly exclusivist circles of power in Ankara will read the signs and engage in some serious introspection, starting with its rash and foolhardy policies targeting the regional environment. It is high time Turkey stopped picking fights with important and influential countries such as Egypt.
This is not just the view of independent academics and observers abroad. More and more voices from inside Turkey have been urging their government to re-establish relations with Egypt. They include Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party in Turkey, who has called for the restoration of relations with Egypt on numerous occasions.
In a recent television interview he said: “We should have retained warm relations with Egypt since 2015.” Addressing Erdogan on 2 September Kilicdaroglu said: “What is this Muslim Brotherhood policy of yours? Why are you fighting with Egypt? To fight with Egypt is to drag Turkey into a disaster in the Mediterranean.”
Ironically, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who recently launched a broadside against Egypt parroting Erdogan’s “coupist” rhetoric, met with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri in Jeddah and Paris after the 30 June 2013 Revolution. He even asked to meet with Shoukri in New York on the fringes of the inauguration of the 69th UN General Assembly session in New York. The meeting was, in fact, scheduled, for 24 September 2014 but Erdogan put a stop to it at the last moment.
Would Erdogan do the same today? Just last week he put his hand to his heart, as he does when he wants to appear sincere, and insisted “there is no revising foreign policy.” Hours later, as the seas grew stormier in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, he said, “let’s give diplomacy a chance, let’s put forth a positive approach for diplomacy.”
Ibrahim Kiras, a columnist with the Turkish daily Karar, pondered Erdogan’s shift in tone towards President Al-Sisi and his reference to the “strong Turkish-Egyptian bond”.
Kiras concludes that the shift was largely pragmatic and occurred only after Erdogan found himself up against a wall with no one to side with him on the question of drilling rights in the East Mediterranean. Zaman, a pro-government newspaper formerly associated with Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt, seemed to attach more importance to Erdogan’s remarks. It described the shift as “major”.
Whatever the case, such remarks are hardly overtures. But even if they were it would be virtually impossible to simply pick up the Turkish-Egyptian friendship where it left off. Erdogan has cultivates a poisonous thicket of anti-Egyptian hatred at home, so much so that even frequent appeals for secret or backchannel communications have proved futile.
As for Egypt, how could it respond to any overtures from Ankara when Turkey harbours so many individuals wanted in Egypt for crimes of terrorism? Until this question is resolved it is difficult to imagine progress in restoring Egyptian-Turkish relations. It is time for Turkey to take a cue from the venerable Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and ask what has Turkey gained from embracing the Muslim Brothers, and what exactly does Erdogan expect from Al-Sisi?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly